The Setai Fifth Avenue’s Guenter Richter



Guenter Richter
Guenter Richter in the lobby of The Setai. He says his biggest compliment is when guests praise the hotel’s staff.



Guenter Richter, the managing director of New York’s The Setai, has a life arc that leaps right from the page of a Cold War thriller. Such is the case when you grow up in Communist East Germany, prior to the Berlin Wall crumbling down. “I was never politically clean so to speak,” Richter tells Luxury Travel Advisor. So, he did what anyone in his position would do: He escaped.

While his breakout doesn’t have the same furtive feel of The Great Escape, it was nonetheless brazen. Having taken a job on a German cruise ship at the age of 18, he went on the lam during a stopover in Stockholm and surreptitiously made his way to the West German embassy. It wasn’t easy. Time away from the ship always had to be in groups. “It was four of us and, at one point, I told them I had to be back on the ship for lunch,” Richter says. He hailed a taxi and made his way to the embassy. Only one of his brothers knew about his plan.

Germany’s secret service, the Bundesnachrichtendienst, as well as the CIA, subjected Richter to interrogation. “They were making sure I wasn’t a spy,” he says. After receiving West German citizenship, he was asked, “What do you want to do now?”

Though growing up under Communist rule was not ideal for Richter, it did, in a roundabout way, seal his fate as a hotelier. “In the Communist countries, you cannot choose your profession,” Richter says. He was given three options: construction, farming or hospitality. Both his parents too worked in hospitality, running a restaurant, so Richter decided to stay down that path.

Good for him. Today he is one of the most successful hoteliers going, known for his knack and know-how in opening hotels. After a successful launch to his career with Hilton Hotels Corp. in Washington, D.C. (at one point, because Richter is a polyglot, he did some interpreting work for Richard Nixon), his path took him to New York, where, for six years, he was managing director of The St. Regis New York (he also had stints with Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, the Waldorf=Astoria, the former Swissôtel New York, The Drake and, before joining The Setai, Richter was GM of The Regent Hotel Bal Harbour in Florida).

Ups and Downs of Opening

While Richter is acclaimed for opening hotels, he admits it’s never the easiest task. “Some of the developers never hire the general manager or management company ahead of time, so you are entering into the operation when the construction company, architect, interior designer, all already have a year or so on you,” Richter says. “Then you come onboard and have to give your input and it may be a different take.”

This was the case at The Setai Fifth Avenue, whose owner, Milan-based Bizzi & Partners Development, tapped Capella Hotels and Resorts to manage the hotel. Richter came into the project a bit late, but was conceded most of the changes he wanted made: embedding TVs into bathroom mirrors (a move that cost $300,000) and adding Duxiana beds, to name two. “You have to make sure that ownership sees these moves as a return on investment,” Richter says.

Opening The Setai during a trough also wasn’t easy. The hotel opened last November with only half of its 214 guest rooms in play and an introductory rate of $545—well off its competitive set, which was also going through tough times.

Studio Suite
A Studio Suite has a bathroom with both a soaking tub and floor-to-ceiling glass shower.

Even though each hotel in the competitive set tries to out-RevPAR the other, there is camaraderie amongst the GMs. “I know all of them intimately,” Richter says of his colleagues at such hotels as The Peninsula, The St. Regis and Four Seasons. “We all have similar problems and we try and help each other when we can. We constantly communicate and there is a mutual respect.”

Though opening a new hotel is edifying for Richter, he says operating the hotel is the most rewarding part of his job. “It’s not my intent to set it up and to move on to the next challenge,” Richter says of The Setai. “I prefer to embrace this place and put everything into it, make it successful and continue to run it successfully.”

Empire State Building
The Hotel is in the shadow of the Empire State Building in unchartered luxury territory.

Agent Matters

A man who has been in the industry for such a long time knows the value of great travel advisors. “Their intricate understanding of the needs of their clients is indispensable and irreplaceable,” Richter says. “Nothing can replace the one-on-one attention to detail. Simply put, to not partner with the travel agency community is to say that one does not understand the luxury business.”

Richter says that The Setai has been well received by the travel advisor community. “The overwhelming response has been that this property is long overdue for the location,” Richter says. “There isn’t a hotel that is comparable in an 18-block radius. Now, agents have a hotel that meet the needs of their upper-echelon client base.”

What a Guest Wants

To The Setai’s credit, it understands that today’s luxury guest expects value. That the hotel doesn’t charge an Internet fee is a step in the right direction. While that is certainly one way to please guests, to garner their loyalty, service has to be spot-on. “The biggest compliment I get is, ‘Your people are incredible,’” Richter says.

They are also adaptable. Ten days after the hotel opened, a Saudi prince and his coterie took over 95 rooms in the hotel. Their demands were, well, regal: more TV channels, bigger TVs, even wall alterations (the one inquiry that had to go unheeded). “We brought new TVs in,” Richter says (luckily there is a Best Buy located on Fifth Avenue near the hotel; they passed the bill onto the prince).

The consummate hotelier, Richter understands that the business of running a successful cash-flow-generating hotel pivots on understanding the clientele. “There is nothing so new in the world anymore,” Richter says. “It’s how you perceive the guests’ wants—not what I want or my colleagues want. It’s about anticipating how guests will perceive this hotel.”

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